is "the Blues"?
Brief discussion of the definition
of blues music
is an African-American music that traverses
a wide range of emotions and musical styles.
“Feeling blue” is expressed in songs
whose verses lament injustice or express longing
for a better life and lost loves, jobs, and
money. But blues is also a raucous dance music
that celebrates pleasure and success. Central
to the idea of blues performance is the concept
that, by performing or listening to the blues,
one is able to overcome sadness and lose the
Among the formal, identifying musical traits
of the blues are the familiar “blue notes,”
a three-line AAB verse form, and a characteristic
use of the familiar blues chord progression.
Historically, the popularity of blues coincides
with the rise of the commercial recording industry,
the introduction of “race” records
aimed at black record-buyers after 1920, and
the emigration of black Americans from the rural
South to the urban North. Many of the earliest
black American recording stars were blues singers.
The first blues songs to be recorded, often
called “classic blues,” were jazz-influenced
songs in a vaudeville style, sung by the great
blueswomen: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey,
Bessie Smith, and others. These singers were
often accompanied by pianists, guitarists, or
even small jazz combos.
The “country blues,” usually considered
an earlier form of the genre, was actually recorded
in the mid-1920s. There are several regional
styles of country blues, including delta blues
from the Mississippi Delta, Texas blues, and
Piedmont blues from the Southeast. Country blues
was usually recorded by a single male singer,
self-accompanied on the guitar or piano, with
perhaps an accompanying harmonica or simple
percussion. Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson,
Blind Boy Fuller, and Robert Johnson were country
Beginning in the 1930s, blues musicians fell
under the influence of urban culture, including
popular music and jazz. Combos incorporating
piano, guitar, and percussion developed, although
the country, “downhome” origins
of the musicians were still evident in the music.
Major musicians of the 1930s included Tampa
Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Little Brother Mongomery,
Leon Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, Lonnie Johnson,
and Memphis Minnie.
After World War II, the use of electrified instruments
became inevitable. During the 1940s, some blues
bands even incorporated saxophones, although
the preference was for amplified harmonicas,
especially in Chicago, a predominant center
of blues recording in the 1950s. Blues from
this period is often called “urban blues,”
“electric blues,” or simply “Chicago
blues.” Important urban blues musicians
included Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Elmore
James, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, and
B. B. King.
Blues remains with us in contemporary American
culture, and as a traditional musical form it
has been subjected to countless revivals and
reinterpretations. Its current practitioners
often integrate the sounds and instrumental
pyrotechnics of rock music and the sheen of
urban soul; but the twelve-bar form, variations
on the blues chord progression, and emotive
lyrical content remain relatively unchanged.